They’re at it again, these creative types, wrong-footing us all with their innovative, fancy-pants reasoning. Last time it was the BBC’s Will Gompertz, him with the artistic hair, trying to convince us in his new book that “We are all artists. We just have to believe it. That’s what artists do.” Now, a genuine academic has joined in the propagandising for the creative life.
Adam Grant, a professor of psychology at the Wharton Business School in Pennsylvania, has written a new book based again on the idea that creative people are the best, and everyone else should get busy trying to be more like them. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move The World involves an idea from Grant’s student, Jihae Shin, who came to him and said, “You know, I have my most creative ideas when I’m procrastinating.” He replied, “That’s cute, where are the four papers you owe me?”, before telling her to go ahead and do the research.
So she asked groups of employees in companies how often they procrastinated, and asked their bosses how creative they were, and found that procrastinators had more innovative ideas. What has been glossed over, however, is the results of the “chronic procrastinators”: there are no results, because they never got around to handing in their questionnaires.
I’ve been suspicious of this hypothesis that ideas are more valuable than action ever since I read the Bible as a child. In the story of Jesus at the home of Mary and Martha, “Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching” while Martha made the dinner and did all the washing up. And who got all the praise? That’s right: the one who slacked off and flirted with Jesus. In my reading, Mary and Martha wouldn’t have even had a house for Jesus to wash his feet in had Martha not knuckled down and mended the roof and paid the bills.
In an ideal society, of course, we need both Marys and Marthas, dreamers and doers. Professor Adams, for example, makes much of the fact that Leonardo da Vinci spent 16 years painting the Mona Lisa, but I bet if Professor Adams hired a painter to do his hallway he’d expect her to finish the job a lot quicker than that. And in some jobs, creativity is more valuable than in others. You don’t score many points for thinking big thoughts if you work in a widget factory.
The author Douglas Adams said: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” If you work on a newspaper, however, deadlines are very much tethered to the ground. They don’t fly by; they smack you in the face like big rocks.
So while I’m glad that there are Da Vincis, Adamses and, to a lesser extent, Marys, life would be a disaster if everyone were like them. Creatives should create, and doers do, and you don’t need to procrastinate all afternoon to realise that.
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